4. Better Things

4. Better Things

Better Things and the Realistically Shitty Kids

 

The problem with television shows that involve children or young adults used to be finding actors talented enough to carry off the sort of performances required, striking a tenuous balance between precocious self-awareness and juvenile behaviour in any given situation. I would argue that’s no longer a concern, as it now seems a plethora of charismatic young actors has been cultivated in Hollywood and abroad, to the extent that it’s now a rarity for a child’s performance to seem stilted and unmotivated. That leads us to the next conundrum: when you have the ability to convincingly showcase what children are actually like, why the fuck would you?

Pamela Adlon as Sam Fox, totally not looking at porn (she is). (FX)

Look, I know there’s a wide spectrum of suckiness when it comes to kids but you have to bear in mind that they all fall somewhere on it and the degree to which they suck is compounded by how many of them there are at any given time; it’s basic, horrifying math. With that said, who would seriously watch, let alone enjoy, a program about child-rearing? I’m talking a good and proper depiction of the undignified, constant struggle of spending a majority of you’re time with people who are too young and self-absorbed to get that everything you do is for them.

Such is the premise of Better Things, a show that doesn’t shy away from those pressures and frustrations but actively embraces them, capturing the frequent hardships and occasional joys of caring for three young girls who are, on average, total arseholes. Pamela Adlon, who co-created and writes the show with longtime collaborator Louis C.K., stars as Sam Fox, a woman who mirrors Adlon’s real life in every possible way. Both Adlon and Fox have had long, successful voice acting careers but rarely get the opportunity to work in live action; even when they do, it’s usually a bit part as the quirky older friend of the main character or the mum on a failed sitcom pilot. Like Adlon, Sam is a divorced mother to three girls, trying to juggle a career with the demands of raising kids that fight her every step of the way. Most thankfully, Sam shares Adlon’s ribald sense of humour and the ability to broach subjects that might seem a little off-colour were they not discussed with such wit and charm, from the inherent racism of old people to the way young girls can get a little gross and, uuuh, interactive around puberty (“She stuck her finger in her pussy and wiped it on [her friend’s] face” is definitely not something you would expect to hear a twelve-year-old say, on TV or otherwise.)

Mikey Madison as Max, smiling. (FX)

Always, always, always though, no matter what, it’s Sam’s kids who take up the most of her (and the show’s) time. There’s the eldest, Max (Mikey Madison), a surly teenager who should just go ahead and get, “Oh my God, Mum!” tattooed on her forehead and save us all some time. Usually, at her worst Max is just a hassle but sometimes she’s flat-out cruel, a mode that adolescents find it scarily easy to slip into when they’re looking to provoke a reaction from someone. Frankie (Hannah Alligood), the middle child, has just entered her teens and, as such, flits back and forth between being youthfully affectionate towards her mother, inconsolably petty and enamoured with the historical and cultural minutiae she’s starting to learn in school.

Hannah Alligood as Frankie, keeping her options open. (FX)

The youngest, Duke (Olivia Edwards), is actually still pretty damn cute. Don’t get me wrong, she’s a typical nine-year-old who does shit like throw a tantrum because Sam won’t buy her a toy that she already has at home, and there are definitely shades of the older, more incisive young lady she’ll become in some of her behaviour. For the most part, though, Duke’s at that age where her mum is pretty much everything to her, the best friend that she doesn’t even realise she has who gets into bed with her if she’s feeling scared at night. Sam understands Duke’s mindset and, what’s more, she knows how temporary it is. She’s been through this already with Max and Frankie so she gets that it can’t last; in that way the scenes she shares with Duke, even at their happiest, can be the most tragic, all tainted by this undercurrent of the inevitable change that will befall their relationship as Duke gains more independence and context of the wider world outside of her mother.

Olivia Edwards as Duke, toying with us. (FX)

Now, that all sounds plenty grim and downbeat, I know, but it’s to Better Things’ credit how enjoyable a viewing experience it remains despite the themes it deals with. A lot of that is due to the way the show and Sam herself carry all of this material with such aplomb, not necessarily resigned to the bullshit of parenting but moreso determined to revel in the simple pleasures that can be derived from it. The idea that these women are part of a perpetual cycle, of daughters becoming mothers, is a central proponent of the show. Sam sees the progression of the relationship she has with her kids through the lens of someone who has had the same thing happen with her mother (Celia Imrie), who lives next door and causes Sam endless irritation. She knows the girls will outgrown her just like she outgrew her mum, but that doesn’t mean she can’t enjoy getting to be a part of that process, watching with pride as her daughters become capable enough to render her obsolete. That’s the dichotomy at the heart of Better Things: the better a parent you are, the earlier your kids stop needing you.

Without being preachy or precious about it, the show does a great job of exploring the ever-shifting dynamics that develop in these kinds of familial situations. On those terms alone Better Things is already a huge success but, seen more generally, it’s worth mentioning that there’s not a bad or even middle-of-the-road episode in the ten that make up this first season; in a handful of scenes throughout, it even makes the case for being one of the best shows on TV, period. One of the standout moments is Sam and Max’s excursion to the mall to buy some professional-looking clothes for the latter, who’s been experiencing a crisis of identity after realising she’s wasted her high school years trying to be cool instead of planning for her future.

Sam and Max in a touching moment. (Jessica Brooks/FX)

Yes I know, it sounds like a trite after school special but this is the shit that teenagers and their parents regularly have to deal with, and goddamn if this show isn’t graceful as fuck about it. Sam, in her best mothering all season, stands with the business-attired Max and gazes with her into a full-length mirror; hands on her shoulders, her voice wavering just slightly with the strain of trying not to burst into tears, she tells her daughter, “Honey, you can be anything you wanna be… but, also, if you just get a job and get by, you’re still gonna love your life. Because life is good, even at its worst.” Max, who so frequently can’t bring herself to even look at her mother without disdain, turns and embraces Sam, saying she loves her as Sam strokes her hair and tells her not to worry. It’s not treacly or hammy; it’s an earned, properly emotional pay-off, made all the more effective by how ephemeral we know it is.

As is the nature of these things, two episodes later Max is back to telling her mother that she hates her and, when that doesn’t work to piss her off, adding that, “You’re short and you’re getting old!”. Regardless, Sam never lets the kids’ resentment or ungratefulness impact her parenting skills. She seems to have internalised and dealt with the idea that, to some degree, a divide will always exist between her and her daughters and it’s her duty not to bridge that distance but fill it with all the love that she can provide. In another wonderful scene, Sam says to a feverish Frankie, “I wish I could take it out of you and put it into me.” She’s talking about Frankie’s illness but the young girl, giggling, thinks she means the medicine she just took. I don’t think there’s anything more representative of the show than that moment: pouring your heart out for a kid who doesn’t quite understand.

 

Better Things is expected to be made available in Australia in 2017.

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